When members of our parents' generation were out forging their careers, it was difficult to up your skills without following the traditional college route. These days, however, a formal education is just one of the options you can make use of to build your business skill set, and few know this better than the latest class of smart, savvy, and resourceful entrepreneurs.
Julissa Arce, the author of My (Underground) American Dream, says she used her spare time reading career books, which helped her plan out how to go from being an intern to being the vice president at Goldman Sachs—in just five years. "I stayed with family an hour and a half away to save on rent, and I used the commute to read How to Win Friends and Influence People twice," she tells CNBC. Then, "I came up with a plan after reading books like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People."
To follow suit, we tapped 14 entrepreneurs to find out which books were instrumental in starting their businesses. You don't need to spend thousands of dollars on courses—just start with these smart and seriously serviceable books.
"This book by Ben Horowitz was published around the time I launched Parachute. As one of Silicon Valley's most successful entrepreneurs, his advice on managing challenges was extremely helpful during that early stage of the business. My most valuable takeaways were cultivating and sustaining a CEO mentality. His leadership tips were invaluable as I navigated tough decisions on how to further my business," says Kaye.
"I read Grit early on, and it demonstrated to me that you just have to keep trying and perfecting your craft and continue innovating. I recommend it to any business owner, as often when you're working on your own, you can get into a bit of a rut or even become complacent. Grit is a reminder to me to keep going and continue to work to drive my business forward. Everyone needs a bit of grit!" says Tran.
"A very good friend of mine gave me a copy of The Art of War. It's not a 'sit down and read it in one session' type of book. But I was facing some challenging moments, and she left a copy on my desk with a note that said 'you need this.' I opened a page randomly, and it said, 'Know yourself, and you will win all battles.' It resonated immediately with me. Sometimes founding a company is like a war: You need discipline, a game plan, confidence, and to understand the enemy (competition). I keep it on my desk for moments when I'm finding things tough. It's not always relevant, but sometimes, it's a better pep talk than any inspirational Instagram post," says Kennedy.
"Shoe Dog is absolutely incredible. He has a unique story and has obviously built Nike into a global icon. In his memoir, he doesn't just highlight the successes he's had, but he's also candid about the struggles of doing something different and new. It's illuminating, relatable, funny, and inspiring—everything you need in a good read," says Fulop.
"Delivering Happiness is such a great book because it places a huge emphasis on company culture and employee morale. When building a business, there are so many things to consider—revenue, expenses, growth, and hiring, among many others—all of which are critical to your success. It can be difficult to know what to prioritize. What I've learned from Tony Hsieh's book, and from my time at Plated, is that if you focus on your employees and invest in building a positive, supportive culture early on, everything else will fall into place." says Karp.
"This book talks about the beautiful intersection between neuroscience, psychology, and behavioral economics to change minor behaviors to make you (and your team) have an awesome day every day. Pivotal for an entrepreneur when there are so many external factors you can't control," says He.
"One of the leadership books I enjoy rereading is Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. Even though it was written in 180 AD, many of his ideas around leadership are still so relevant and inspiring today. One of the lessons that I try to live by is to not let myself get infected with negativity, judgment, and pessimism, and instead lead with kindness, empathy, and an open heart," says Faulhaber.
"While I didn't read The Lean Startup until about a year after I started Farmgirl Flowers, it was an instrumental book for me in figuring out how to navigate the business through the early years. It gave me permission to launch early and change key aspects of the business quickly and without a lot of fanfare. It made me not take failures so personally, and look at them with gratitude as learning opportunities. And as a perfectionist, it showed me the importance of letting some things go and to strive for the balance between perseverance and flexibility," says Stembel.
"This memoir is about author Haruki Murakami's pursuits of running and writing, but it speaks to much more than that—it's about taking risks, making sacrifices, developing discipline, overcoming fear, and building resilience. I tend to read a lot of business books, but more often than not, the non-business books (like this one) are the ones that provide the most inspiration to me as I build Mend," says Huerta.
"Mark Globe defines the importance of shifting the focus from the product to people. Being restlessly imaginative, it is crucial that you are communicating your designs but also understanding it through your consumers' eyes and through head and heart emotional connections. The greatest lesson I learned is that there's no getting there without your team. It's that simple, and it cannot be overemphasized," says Malone.
"I'm drawn to books that multitask (like me): books with both work and life implications. Most recently I've read (and I recommend reading) Option B by Sheryl Sandberg. It's a reminder not to give up but to push through, no matter how big or small the obstacle. Her philosophy that you may need to change directions or modify your plans is very applicable when you're running a business where being nimble is what it's all about and things change daily. And her message is simple and effective. No matter what, just. keep. going," says Kaplan.
"I love this book because it teaches you to never take anything for granted. If you approach every element of your business as a potential opportunity for innovation, you'll never feel stagnant. This book gives you a process for attacking problems. No one book can teach you how to run your own company. However, this one gives great tools on how to define and overcome problems along the way," says Shah.
Have you created a business? Tell us what book was instrumental when starting out.